The film begins and ends with narration by Alice Goodwin (Weaver), good wife and mother, and in these two moments, there is theassurance of meaning and promise beyond the mundane, beyond the slings andarrows of outrageous circumstances. But unlike Jane Hamilton's novel, the film'snarrator then disappears for 125 minutes, leaving the audiencefeeling as bereft as the poor suffering families on the screen.
Alice and Howard Goodwin (Strathairn) are barely making ends meet on theirrundown midwestern dairy farm. Alice has to make up forthe shortfall by being a school nurse. This is not Martha Stewart's farmlife by any stretch. Alice is disorganized and frustrated; withouther voice poetically describing her love for her husband and his romanticview of farming, their lives would look merely messy and trying.
Enter hideous tragedy. For once it's not cancer, that hackneyed Hollywood plot point, but something far more challenging and complex.
Shortly after Alice's neighbor Theresa (Julianne Moore, in an excellent turnas a decent, normal person) drops off her two little girls to play withthe Goodwin daughters, Alice goes upstairs to find her bathing suit. She comes across her long-forgotten map of the world which she drewas a child. Not a bad thing to be doing on a sunny morning, except thatwhen she returns to her charges, the littlest child has disappeared.Alice runs outsideto find Theresa's two year-old lying face down in the small lake.
The brain-dead baby lingers, but finally dies. Alice goes into a deep depression, unable to even dress herself, let alonetake care of her kids. Husband Howard's judgmental mother, a perfectly cast LouiseFletcher, arrives to cook, clean and look askance. When Alice runs out ofthe funeral, later claiming that "I'm trying to have a nervous breakdownand no one will let me," the sense is that things couldn't get worse.
But they do, and in short order. The sheriff arrives with a warrant for Alice's arrest for molesting a six year-old boy at the school where she's a nurse.
But here the story takes a surprising turn. Alicefinds being in jail with all the lowlife and quasi-deranged to becomforting. Locked away, she is free to read and muse, and mostimportantly, pay for her sins--sins the neighbors are all too happy todistort to kingdom come.
Scott Elliott's confident direction keeps the film from descendinginto a cliched courtroom cliffhanger. Rather, he concentrates on Weaver, allowing her mythic dimension of the movie to emerge.
What makes this an honest film is its conceit that bad fortune can strike atany minute, and without warning. What is enduring is the underlying messagethat even the worst of times can be opportunities to become more alive,more human.David Strathairn's Howard, for instance, stops living in his head to become whatone would imagine Jesus would be like as a forty year-old man without the bail money for his wife. He pulls himself together, dies to his dream, and sells the farm.
The bereaved mother of the dead child, a good Catholic, nearly loses her life-force, questioning everything seen and unseen, before drawing on her deep well of humanity to testify on her friend's behalf.
Fans of Hamilton's novel will realize anew the limitations of film. Undeveloped here is Alice's journey to forgiving herself, and Howard who, she realizes in jail, has betrayedher in hundreds of little ways.
Indeed, Hamilton's story is too complex, too meaty,too layered for any director, any writer, or brilliant actors to bringcompletely to life. I especially missed the elegant prose that throughout the novel provided the sweet scent of hope, allowing the harshness of life a proper measure of light.